The tyranny of the small ‘g’ god and the need for radical Christian reform

The Bishop of Bradford, Nick Baines, has blogged about ‘the disaster that is Chichester’, noting that the report rightly makes recommendations for the whole Church of England.

Nick says the significant point about the Chichester report is the recognition that the safeguarding failures are largely the result of institutional incoherence, a failure of leadership and structural fragmentation.

“One thing this suggests is that any diocese needs clear authority structures, clear processes and communications, clear structural consistency and coherence, and clear integrity of purpose. If this is not so, matters such as safeguarding will never be considered or administered consistently across the piece. This is what Monty Python called ‘the bleeding obvious’.”

It’s obvious to Nick in his role as the adult ultimately responsible for the legal and administrative functions in a diocese that clarity of authority, process, communication and integrity of purpose that these are critical, especially when the protection of vulnerable people is at stake.

I confess to being one of those people who inclines to undervalue structures, infrastructure and policies. I don’t think administration is ‘unspiritual’ but I do find it very, very tedious to perform. I agree with Nick that the ‘Chichester business brings it starkly home that where the structures are not well-oiled everything else becomes vulnerable’.

Nick says he was writing a piece yesterday about ‘renouncing evil’ for publication later, so I may need to cut him some slack for not covering further dimensions in his blog about Chichester which I think are critical and should be addressed at depth and with equally serious commitment by the national Church.

Nick recognizes that the Chichester mess puts ‘the spotlight back onto how the Church of England fulfils its vocation: to speak for the voiceless, to bring the Jesus of the Gospels to people, to facilitate reconciliation and healing, to demonstrate the power of realism, repentance and forgiveness’.

The Church of England allows people, and I include archbishops, bishops, priests and lay people, to live with unchallenged images of a god who is dysfunctional and abusive (and clearly not the God of love revealed by Jesus Christ).

In the final chapter of Leaving Alexandria, Richard Holloway reflects on his mutating faith, asking whether he was in any recognizable sense still a Christian. What had he lost and what had he kept when he resigned in 2001? Was religion a lie? Not necessarily, he says, but a mistake. Mistakes can be corrected. The mistake in his case was to think that religion was more than human. It is a work of the human imagination, a work of art, and the real issue is whether it should be given more authority over us than any other work of art, especially if it is the kind of authority that overrides our own better judgments.

He writes:

“It was a massive issue for me, because it was from its claims to unique authority that its manifest cruelty arose – and it was a cruelty I could no longer stomach. It is one thing to be in a state of ignorance – to believe that women are inferior to me, that gays are an abomination – because that is going opinion, the prevailing worldview; it is another thing to go on holding that opinion in the face of clear evidence to the contrary because an institution, whether Bible or Church, claims not on any evidential base, but simply on its own authority that what is wrong is right because it says so.

Richard Holloway wants to keep religion around, “purged of cruelty, because it gives us a space to listen and wonder within.”

Nick Bain has identified that nationally, the Church of England has to take the findings of the Chichester report seriously, review current policy and ensure the practice of the Church in relation to child and vulnerable adult protection is implemented as rigorously as possible.

But as Richard Holloway identifies, children, young people and vulnerable adults are not the only groups at risk of abuse in a Church which worships a cruel god. The cruel god encourages extreme abuse of power over vulnerable people by those in positions of pastoral care who ought to be their protectors, nurturing them in the gifts and beauty of life.

Although the House of Bishops, General Synod as a body and the Archbishops Council clearly don’t agree with me, I think Church treatment of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people can also be abusive.  The Church is using the authority of the institution, both Bible and Church, to implement policies which are detrimental to the health and wellbeing of groups of people in the Church and ultimately, of the whole Church of God.

The safeguarding failures in Chichester are more than just the result of institutional incoherence, a failure of leadership and structural fragmentation. They arise from the Church’s image of a god who condones patterns of behaviour which vary from the abusive to the tyrannical. The debates taking place in the Church about women in the episcopate and the place of LGB&T people, equal marriage and the blessing of gay relationships occur in the context of beliefs about God which allow prejudice to thrive.

What is ‘bleeding obvious’ to me is what Richard Holloway identifies as manifest cruelty in the Church, the belief that women are inferior to men and that gays are an abomination.

It has become clear to me that many people worship a god who is cruel, partisan, judgmental and abusive. This god justifies the positions adopted by those on the extreme wings of the Church, who Synod and the bishops are trying to placate (let alone those elsewhere in our Communion who adopt vicious anti-gay attitudes).

I think this is all connected, from, at the local level, the prevalence of inadequate protection for children in Chichester, the dysfunctional diocesan relationships, the preponderance of unhealthy clergy in a diocese that affords a home to so many with prejudices against women and a fear of being identified as gay to, at the national and global level, the inability of Christian Churches to understand the implications of God who is infinite love and proclaims justice for all people.

While the self-righteous trumpeters of god’s punitive justice proclaim that they and they alone are true Christians, the edifice is crumbling around them, destroyed by its failure to create the space in which we can listen and wonder within and worship the infinite glories and beauty of this created universe.

Our campaign has to be for more than gay equality, more than the blessing of relationships and equal marriage. It has to be a campaign for the renewal of the Church and a reorientation to the elusive God of infinite love, wisdom, beauty, glory and truth.

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